Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist, political dissident and human rights activist, is set to present an exhibition on San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island. This will be the first time in history that the former California penitentiary will hold a major art exhibition. @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz will run from September 27, 2014 through April 26, 2015.
Off the shore of the San Francisco Bay sits Alcatraz Island. It juts out of the bay, in the midst of irregular currents, barren and devoid of vegetation or running water. The Rock became the alternative name for the island prior to its penitentiary history. The moniker’s significance traces back to when it was an island for the first lighthouse on the Pacific, and then a military prison. The desolate island also played a key role in the defenses of San Francisco Harbor. However, what most visitors envision when they tour Alcatraz Island is a forbidding U.S. penitentiary, most notable for holding the most desperate federal prisoners such as Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.
No stranger to imprisonment, Ai Weiwei was detained for 81 days in a Chinese prison during 2011 on tax evasion charges. The arrest followed what supporters claim was his investigation and alleged criticism of the Chinese government for substandard construction that contributed to the death of schoolchildren during the Sichuan earthquake in 2008.
The upcoming Alcatraz exhibition is directly significant to Ai Weiwei. Having the opportunity to present his work on Alcatraz enables the artist to confront issues such as institutional power and imprisonment. It was with the help of San Francisco gallery owner, Cheryl Haines who worked with Ai to make the exhibition become a reality. Unfortunately, the artist cannot experience his own show as the Chinese government has instated travel restrictions. He told the New York Times that his passport has been in the possession of the police for nearly three years.
With the assistance of Haines, Ai Weiwei has received approval from the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy for funding and programming, National Park Service, which oversees the island, and the State Department. Selected works will take in consideration the visitor traffic that the island receives daily.
Since their initial meeting in Beijing, Haines has been remotely working with Ai Weiwei to make the @Large exhibition possible. Haines founded the nonprofit foundation For-Site that helps support site-specific public-art projects in the City by the Bay.
While nothing precise has been publically announced, details are slowly emerging. The artist plans to present sound installations, mixed-media works and sculptures throughout the prison areas, specifically in A-Block, Alcatraz hospital, New Industries Building on the western end of the island and the dining hall – with three of the spaces not regularly accessible to visitors, but opened specifically for the exhibition.
Although, Ai has never set foot on Alcatraz, he is interested in exploring conditions wherein persons are “stripped of basic human rights.” Haines noted that Weiwei hopes to address “parallels between forms of imprisonment and governments that use restrictions in communications to control people.” The artist has been reading about the history and myth of Alcatraz Island and has watched films such as Escape from Alcatraz and Birdman of Alcatraz to get a better impression of the craggy island. Even though Ai’s works will be presented at the penitentiary, the exhibit will not correlate to his own detention.
One initial concern about the Alcatraz exhibit was the location’s practicality. According to National Park Service superintendent for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Frank Dean, the agency had to review the practical issues and logistical challenges before issuing approval for the epic show. Alcatraz Island is only 22 acres and during peak season, it receives up to 5,000 visitors a day. “The island is not connected to the electrical grid,” said Dean. “In addition, we have to bring water out on the barge.” Other factors included the natural seabird habitat, not disturbing the architecture and the flow of visitors, which will likely increase due to the exhibit.
San Francisco also had political concerns, given Ai’s embattled history with the Chinese government. He received the go-ahead from the State Department, while Haine’s For-Site nonprofit has been raising funds from private donors and foundations. Ai Weiwei will not receive any commission from the exhibition, nor will visitors be charged a fee over their regular Alcatraz tour ticket.
Specifics on precisely what Ai Weiwei will be showing at Alcatraz Island are not publicized, but the For-Site nonprofit states that the @Large exhibit’s message will encourage visitors to “consider the implications of incarceration and the possibilities of art as an act of conscience.”
By Dawn Levesque